Debates and Impasse Chains

What is a debate? What is an impasse chain? How do debates rationally reach conclusions? How can you rationally end a debate unilaterally? How do you deal with a person with the time and energy to keep taking the last word? I’ll explain.

A debate is a discussion about a disagreement. The ideal outcome is reaching agreement. Because there is a single, non-contradictory objective truth, agreement is always theoretically possible. But we’re imperfect, we have flaws and biases, we make mistakes, we’re ignorant of many things, we have limited time to debate … so we often fail to reach agreement.

So there needs to be a way to end a debate without reaching agreement. What’s the backup plan? First, you may agree to disagree. You may agree to stop debating. You may agree it’s a hard problem. You can often disagree about the issue but still respect each other. You can agree that you both have higher priorities than continuing the debate further, and that it was productive and you both learned something. Outcomes like that, while they aren’t agreement on the issue debated, are still pretty good.

But what if you can’t agree at all? We need a second backup plan that lets us unilaterally end a debate. That backup plan is to explain an impasse chain.

An impasse is a reason the debate isn’t working. Why is it stuck? What is the problem with the debate? For example, we’re stuck because the other guy doesn’t understand an issue and refuses to read a book you recommended which explains the issue. He’s being unreasonable by trying to debate this while not knowing key ideas and refusing to learn them.

What happens after you state an impasse? The original discussion is temporarily set aside pending resolution of the impasse. The impasse is a reason to stop having the discussion because it’s stuck due to some problem. This problem must be solved before continuing. (If it were a minor problem which could be ignored, that wouldn’t be an impasse.)

Discussion of an impasse will have one of three results. The impasse problem is solved, the impasse problem turns out to be a non-problem (there was a misconception or misunderstanding which gets cleared up), or the discussion of the impasse reaches another impasse. In other words, you deal with the impasse and agree, or you get stuck.

If you have an impasse in a discussion about an impasse, now you have a chain of two impasses. An impasse about an impasse about an impasse is a chain of three.

Impasses should be stated one at a time. This allows the other guy to respond rather than you trying to predict everything in advance. Each time an impasse is stated, it changes the discussion to that topic and temporarily sets aside prior discussion. Prior discussion can be returned to if the impasse is resolved.

The minimum that makes sense for giving up on a discussion is a chain of three impasses. Because of misunderstandings, confusion, tolerance, benefit of the doubt, good will, and for extra clarity, I recommend using chains of five or more impasses before unilaterally ending a discussion. Most people don’t understand what impasses are, how they work in discussions, how to deal with them, etc., so doing five impasses gives them a chance to catch on instead of the conversation ending too abruptly. Five impasses also reduces the possibility that you make a mistake, the problem is your own bias, and that kind of thing.

Errors happen and should be expected. The initial error (first impasse) is OK. No big deal. When you have a debate (or any discussion), problems will come up and you’ll deal with them. What’s more problematic is things which block error correction. That’s what a second impasse is. It’s a reason that problem solving or error correction about the initial problem (first impasse) is getting stuck.

When you state a second impasse, you’re making an initial claim that error correction about the first impasse isn’t working. It’s unreasonable to exit a discussion at the same time that you introduce a major new claim. The other person should have a chance to respond. Maybe they have a counter-argument or they can clear up a misunderstanding.

When you state a third impasse, it’s a reason that error correction about the problem with error correction isn’t working. That’s starting to get pretty abstract and removed from the original conversation. That makes sense. We’re discussing what’s wrong with the conversation which is actually a different topic than the original topic.

Five impasses is a good rule of thumb for the minimum to use. Using more is sometimes a good idea. What you can look for is repetitive impasses. If you’ve brought up essentially the same impasse twice in a row (three times is even clearer), that’s a good reason to stop. There’s no need to do more impasses when they’re all the same anyway. This typically means you’ve reached a point where the other person is being irrational in a complete way that closes off all potential ways of making progress. Then, whatever you say, nothing changes, so the impasses keep repeating.

You can also stop stating impasses if the other person refuses to discuss further. E.g. if they won’t respond to the second impasse (they say they’re done talking or just never say anything), no third impasse is needed.

FYI, blocking error correction or preventing problem solving is what irrationality is. Impasses chained after the first one commonly involve claiming that the other person is irrational. Irrationality is the main reason for ending discussions unilaterally (if they are rational, wouldn’t you want to discuss with them, or at least be able to come to some sort of agreement about what happens next?).

Impasse chains are fallible. You could be wrong about every step in the chain. There’s no way to get an absolute guarantee that you’re right or that you’re being reasonable or rational. Impasse chains objectively clarify what the discussion problems are, why they’re stuck, how you see the discussion, and why you stopped discussing. They provide information so that you can be judged. They let someone come along and see why you’re right or tell you why you made a mistake. People commonly end discussions without clearly explaining why; stating your position and viewpoint is better than that; and communicating an an impasse chain is much better than only stating an initial argument about a problem.

You can be most confident when you state an impasse chain and the other guy doesn’t. If he has an explanation of why you’re the one preventing progress in the discussion, and what you’re doing wrong, and what chain of impasses you’ve caused, that’s all worth considering and trying to address. That type of critical feedback is both important and hard to come by.

Impasse chains are the best and most rational method that I know of for unilaterally ending discussions rationally. If they were in widespread use, it’d improve discussions. The typical things people do instead are much worse because they aren’t designed to make bias and dishonesty hard. Most of what people do is freeform, unexplained judgment – they just kinda do their best to form an opinion and that’s that –  and if they’re biased there’s no good way to fix it. And people commonly only want to discuss the original topic, but not what’s wrong with the discussion, so they basically don’t even try to argue their case about why and how the other guy is messing up the discussion. So they are ending the discussion for reasons they don’t talk about, so they don’t get critical feedback (they may be wrong in some major way or there could have been a misunderstanding) and the other guy doesn’t know what happened (to learn from if he really was discussing badly).

Impasse chains provide a structured method, with steps you can follow, so you aren’t improvising or using ad hoc judgments. Following a specific (and publicly documented) plan makes it harder for you to act on arbitrary bias (and hide what’s going on). Structured methods make things better similar to how using checklists helps improve care quality in hospitals compared to people just doing their best to remember all the actions that need to be taken and which have been taken.

Impasse chains are often consequential for people’s reputations. They are intended to clarify who is good to discuss with, who isn’t, and why. They’re about expressing irreconcilable differences with someone, which usually involves claiming it’s their fault (otherwise you’d be able to reach an agreement, e.g. that you have different interests and can each faultlessly go your separate ways and do your own thing).

Summary: Rational discussions continue to agreement or to a stated chain of impasses.

See also my debate policy, my Paths Forward material, and my How To Discuss blog category.